Dealbreaker: The Johnny Cash Tattoo

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Claire and I broke up because of Johnny Cash. Now, years removed, I want to tell myself it was more than that. Something more mature. Nothing as simplistic, as shallow. But the truth, like death, is unavoidable. It knows the reason why: Johnny fucking Cash.

I met Claire in a wine store. She was training to become a sommelier. She was short and fit, with rust-colored curls that fell across her face. I feigned an interest in a Chilean red, and we flirted. Her voice had a raspy Janis Joplin quality to it, like she smoked too many cigarettes as a child. It was sexy. I asked her to dinner.

A few days later, we went to a tapas bar that was reputed to have an extensive wine list.

As soon as we were seated, Claire brushed the hair from her eyes and asked, "So, what do you think of tattoos?"

She wanted to cut the foreplay and get right to it, sidestep the formality of childhood pets and high-school English teachers. Even as she asked, I could see the beginnings of a rose bush peeking out from the sleeve of her blouse. The vines entwined with the veins of her wrist, the roses black.

"I suppose the right ones, on the right woman, can be sexy," I said.

As soon as it left my mouth, I knew it was a lame noncommittal response. A politician's answer.


"Well, I have a lot," she said, her eyes on mine.

Over dinner, Claire delved into the back stories of her body art. Some were simple enough. She had a giant purple squid on her shoulder because she liked squids. Why not? Below her left breast was a lacrosse stick memorializing her high school athletics. All-righty. A shamrock because she was Irish, a skull-and-crossbones from a temporary Goth phase. At some point, though, her stories veered off the road of symbolism and headed precariously towards regret. A drunken night in San Diego garnered her the zodiac symbol for Pisces. (Claire is a Taurus.) On the flesh over her lower back was a flaming blue cauldron emblazoned with — wait for it — the words "BAD ASS."

I believe the Bible says something about not passing judgment if you're trying to get laid.

"I've tried to put happy and beautiful things on my body in the hope that it would make me feel happy and beautiful," Claire told me during dessert.

I realize now that this statement was laden with body issues and general emotional baggage. At the time, it seemed like an honest summation. Five glasses of wine and as many weeks without sex had shut down my "crazy" radar. When Claire asked if I wanted to go back to her place, I naturally said yes.

My feelings about Claire's ink didn't fully coalesce until we were in her bed, undressing each another. This was it: her unveiling, her one-woman show. Even though I knew what to expect — all her characters were present and accounted for — I was still taken aback. Clad solely in black panties, covered in these drawings bereft of any real meaning, her body didn't look so much sexy as it did comical, commercialized, like I was about to have sex with the cereal aisle. Even so, I decided to ignore my feelings for the sake of our unfolding sexual drama. I believe the Bible says something about not passing judgment if you're trying to get laid. I made a move for her underwear.

"Wait," she said. "I have another tattoo I didn't tell you about."

"Okay," I said, the blood returning north to help power my imagination.

Claire then told me how she used to sing in this Johnny Cash cover band, and how much his music meant to her. She said his voice and lyrics conveyed a lifetime of pain, loss, love and faith.

And this is why Claire then told me, "I have Johnny Cash tattooed on my pussy."





In all honesty, I don't remember exactly what I said then. What is the correct response to that? It must have been something along the lines of "Can I see?" because Claire started to slip off her panties, her hands moving slower than those of the slowest clock. And sure enough: just above her labia, rendered boldly in black ink, was the face of Johnny Cash. It was about the size of a child's fist, his black pompadour inches from her waistline. A vaginal Mount Rushmore.

I told Claire that it was no big deal, pulling her towards me and reassuring her with a kiss. But as our foreplay resumed, I peeked down there just to make sure I hadn't imagined it all. That's when the voice began: deep, thundery, reverberating, drowning out all the other sounds in my head. Again and again, I heard the catchphrase he would use to begin each concert:

Heeellooo, I'm Johnny Cash.

I pride myself on seeing things through, so I persevered. It seemed to help if I focused my attention on the tattoo-free areas, pausing to conciliatorily kiss a shamrock, lick a lacrosse stick. Claire responded with grateful moans, running her fingers through my hair, gently pushing my head south. And it was with this, her silent request for oral, that I found myself face to face with the man in black. His dark, vacant, unblinking eyes bored into mine, judging my technique. Still, I would not be deterred. As my tongue probed and explored, Claire began to touch herself, using both hands to spread herself open. This resulted in her distorting Johnny's face, pulling it into unnatural, inhuman positions, like when children stick Silly Putty onto the Sunday comics.

This was too much. I rolled off Claire and breathlessly asked if we could just have sex. She agreed, and for a few grateful minutes the only eyes staring into mine were hers.

Even the sex wasn't a reprieve.

Afterward, our post-coital silence hung heavy in the room. I turned my back to Claire, but could still feel her eyes on me, open and calculating.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

I tried to convince myself I could handle it, but even the sex wasn't a reprieve. The friction left Johnny's face all red, like he'd had too much sun. It was amusing, then terribly disturbing.

"I'm not sure I can do this," I said.

"Asshole," she screamed. Her eyes welling up with tears. "I told you. I told about my tattoos, and you said it was okay."

She was right. She had been honest and forthcoming. She wore her heart — or at least her squid — on her sleeve. I muttered a few apologies, but Claire saw the unrelenting look on my face. She had heard enough. Naked, she gathered my clothes in her arms and furiously ushered me from her apartment. Before she slammed the door in my face, I stole one final glimpse of Johnny. He looked hurt. 

Joe Dornich is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.

©2008 Joe Dornich and Nerve.com